Mellow. Such a lovely word. What makes you mellow? For me, it’s driving. Preferably without a child in the backseat, or at least a sleeping child. There’s just something about hitting the open road that is good for my heart and soul.Can’t we all use a little more of this wonderful quality in our lives?
And isn’t this one of the characteristics that we all want for our kids? To be free from the problems of depression and anxiety and able to navigate life’s ups and down without undue stress. To have the ability to regulate emotions to be confident, happy adults?
Mellow? Yes please.
Today’s post talks about what we can do as parents to guide our kids through their upsets and anger, and towards mellowness. The analogy of driving through life just seems to fit this topic, so I hope you’ll excuse my comparisons!
Learning to Drive Our Emotional Cars
Having experienced a depression myself in my 20s, I want emotional health for my 3 year old son, Onetime, above all other things. I am determined to do everything (in my power) to help him grow up to be free from depression and unnecessary anxiety. To me that means him growing up understanding his emotions and how to handle them without becoming overwhelmed.
And here’s where the analogy comes in. In a way, we each have our own emotional “cars” we need to learn how to drive on the road of life. Some cars go fast and take in the scenery really quickly, while others take their time and really see the view. But all drivers need to learn to drive their own car, so it doesn’t get out of control and crash.
For myself, to learn how to drive my car, I needed to do a lot of reading, talking, and reflecting. In the course of my quest for understanding, I learned how depression is often the result not of being “too emotional” a person (something I’ve been told way too many times!), but a result of keeping negative emotions suppressed for far too long.
That was definitely me, to most of my peers I appeared to be quite happy and cheerful, but inside I was sad and angry and often felt misunderstood. I didn’t know how to release my negative emotions and move through them. I felt stuck, and after a while, it caught up with me and I became depressed.
One common experience that depressed and anxious people have is that the sad or anxious feelings seem like they will never go away. This of course, is not true, but is a really painful thought. Kids need to be taught that emotions are not something to be feared or suppressed, but are temporary and will pass if released.
Temper Tantrums: Releasing Upset Feelings
How they are released is probably quite familiar to you if you have a young child. Crying, shouting, hiding, hitting, and temper tantrums are all ways that children release their sadness, anger, and hurts. The behaviours just differ in intensity with different personalities and temperaments.
According to Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, conveying to kids that certain emotions are inappropriate to express, leads to the feelings being suppressed. The problem is, they don’t disappear, they just get pushed down. For example, in many families, girls are discouraged from expressing anger and boys are discouraged from expressing sadness.
Unfortunately, when the feelings are suppressed, they tend to explode later in a torrent (translation: temper tantrum), OR kids start showing signs of internal stress (ie. biting nails, hitting their head on the floor or wall, twirling hair), and may become anxious, violent, or depressed. In their teens, they may start experimenting with drugs or drinking to try and numb those feelings. Pretty grim huh?
If kids don’t learn to drive their cars, and release their negative emotions in a healthy way – they are on the road to big problems. Suddenly the road ahead seems treacherous, instead of something that can be dealt with.
Positive Parenting Approaches to Help Upset Kids
Faber and Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, talk about the importance of acknowledging our kids’ feelings when they are upset or angry. They put this topic as the first chapter of their book, because they recognize how critical this skill is in communicating with, and parenting, our children.
Kids need to feel that their parents care about and understand their feelings. In fact, when in the throws of a negative emotion, it is impossible for many kids to listen to advice, or reason, or react positively until those feelings are acknowledged.
It’s like the battery is disconnected!
Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, talks about how kids have a metaphorical “hurts cup” and a “love cup.” Hurts build up on a daily basis (more quickly for sensitive kids) and can overflow once they reach a certain point (again, think: temper tantrums). When a child’s hurts cup is empty and their love cup is full, they feel their happiest and most mellow!
The trick to helping them keep their hurts cup empty is to acknowledge the child’s negative feelings and to allow kids to release them without scolding, shaming, denying, downplaying, or otherwise impeding the release of the negative feelings.
If negative emotions are released regularly, they aren’t as likely to build up and overflow at unexpected times. Kids then learn the important life lesson that negative emotions are temporary and once released, they can feel much better and be able to solve their own problems and handle life’s disappointments again. Suddenly, negative feelings aren’t so scary anymore.
Keeping these things in mind, here are 8 ways you can support an upset child so that they can move through the negative feelings into a state of mellowness! Aw…yes!
8 Ways to Support an Upset Child
1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings.
Basically, tell the child that you see how they are feeling. “I see you are really upset/angry/embarassed.” Yes – it’s that simple! Looking for other examples? Check out our earlier post B is for Behaved.
2. Accept the child’s negative emotions.
This is not so much something you do, as an attitude you hold about your child’s expressing their feelings. If you can accept that expressing negative emotions is a part of being emotionally healthy (and a part of being human!), your child will sense this too.
3. Empathize with the child.
Sometimes this one is very difficult to do. According to Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, if you yourself have a difficult time expressing negative emotions, or were taught to suppress them, it can be very difficult to accept them in someone else – especially from a child where they tend to come out so raw. This is part of the reason why men, who often grow up being discouraged from showing sadness, often find it difficult to listen to a crying baby.
When Onetime was an infant I found it almost unbearable to hear him cry and I would do just about anything to get him to stop – cuddle him, nurse him, dance around the room snuggling for hours until he would settle. And that’s what Mother Nature intended when she designed the unique joy of a baby’s cry (I hope you know I’m being sarcastic here.)
It’s no different when kids get older. Kids still need us to be there and be supportive of their negative feelings – even if we don’t understand what caused them, even if it’s an inconvenient time, and even if they make us feel upset or uncomfortable (isn’t that just our issue to deal with – not theirs?)
4. Stay close.
When kids are sent to their rooms because they are upset, or otherwise excluded from being in our presence, they learn they have to deal with the emotions themselves. According to Lawrence J. Cohen, this essentially leads to kids feeling abandoned, isolated and powerless over their feelings. Quite the opposite of how we probably want them to feel.
Yes – even boys. I will never forget the time when I was walking around the neighbourhood with Onetime as a baby, and I overheard a conversation between 3 young boys about age 6, who were playing hockey. One of the boys had just taken a puck in the stomach and was doubled over and crying in the driveway.
A second boy looked alarmed, but just stood there. The third boy walked over and announced in a very loud voice, clearly mimicking something he had been told many times, “Get up! Boys don’t cry!” and he pushed the hurt boy over.
I was flabbergasted! I had certainly seen this kind of behaviour on the playground as a teacher, but not in boys so young. I looked down into the sweet face of Onetime, only a couple of months old, and swore that he would not become a boy like that.
In my opinion, there is no reason why being a man has to mean that expressions of hurt and empathy are suppressed. In fact, I believe that some of our society’s strongest men are the ones that are able to confidently express their emotions and find strength in them.
After acknowledging and accepting a child’s feelings, he or she may still be quite upset. Then what do you do?
Some children really like a hug at this point, and after a few minutes of a nice hug or rocking, everything is better.
Then there are those kids that really DON’T want a hug. When I was working with troubled teens years ago as a behaviour therapist, we learned how important it is to follow the child’s cues with this.
For some kids, a hug feels like being crowded and can actually make things worse. In any case, offer a hug and your child will tell you what they want. Remember, stay close anyway.
7. Wait it out.
Whether you’re hugging it out, or just sitting nearby, sometimes this is all you can do until all those emotions have poured out.
8. Reconnect when it’s all over.
Eventually, when your child is feeling better – you will see a physical difference in their demeanor. They will be much more relaxed. And they should feel much better themselves too.
Don’t you after a good cry?
Now is a good time to do something pleasant together to connect. There are some great ideas in this post 30 Joyful Ways to Connect With Your Child.
A Perfect Storm
As an aside, it’s important to know ahead of time that sometimes doing these 8 things will nip the upset in the bud – and the storm will pass quickly. And sometimes, especially if this is a new way of responding to your child, the child may get even more upset than usual.
According to Dr. Cohen and Pam Leo, this reason for this is that once emotions start coming out, they can gain momentum, and pain from the past that was stored up or suppressed can start to come out too, as well as the current hurt. That’s why sometimes something as simple as a scraped knee can lead to an upset that appears to be out of proportion to the injury.
When all that negative emotion is finally out, kids are returned to equilibrium and will be pretty calm and mellow! Instead of wasting energy trying to stop the negative emotions, we can support their release – knowing that it is beneficial for kids to release them.
So how is this supposed to help our kids learn to regulate their emotions? Isn’t this just letting them lose control? Well, yes and no. It is through allowing emotions to be expressed, that kids learn eventually how to best regulate them.
The Road of Life
I think of it like this, if our body is an emotional car on the road of life, we need our kids to practice learning how to handle those curvy bumpy roads now before the mountains appear and the driving starts getting really tough!
Just think of all the curvy, death-defying roads of teen and adulthood.
If our kids are deprived of the chance to practise driving those difficult roads now, they aren’t going to learn the necessary skills to lean on as adults.
That’s why ways that we have developed ourselves, like exercising, talking with friends, finding “me” time, etc. are not necessarily what will work best for our child. It’s only through experience with their own car, that they will figure these things out.
Let’s be our kids’ best possible “driving” instructors. Let’s give them lots of hands-on practice on the road of life with a caring, supportive coach in the passenger seat. Hopefully, then we’ll be pointing them in the direction of a lifetime of mellow.
To long winding roads with few accidents and dead-ends!
To find all my previous posts listed below, be sure to visit the Character Series page.